Millions of working people watched as twenty right-wing Republican Freedom Caucus members of the new House of Representatives held Republican Party leader Kevin McCarthy hostage as they demanded concessions in exchange for supporting him as House Speaker.
The Freedom Caucus – which includes the far right MAGA Squad – ultimately forced McCarthy to make a “cornucopia of concessions,” as the New York Times called it, before finally voting to approve his speakership.
It is deeply unfortunate that it fell to right-wing Republicans to demonstrate how to use leverage to force concessions from the establishment. With a continued failure of any real leadership on the left, the Speakership fight has revealed just how quickly, and dangerously, the right populist current can fill the void. It is a frightening flashback to how Trump won his election in the first place.
As this drama played out on the floor of Congress, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) boasted about how “grounded and reasonable” she and others in the Squad have been to get in line behind the Democratic Party leaders. Socialist Alternative thinks this is a mistake.
Two years ago, AOC and the rest of the “Squad” dutifully lined up behind Nancy Pelosi (or “Mama bear,” as so-called “democratic socialist” AOC has dubbed her) for Speakership, with no progressive victories to show for it. Once again this year, the Squad, along with the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), stood unquestioningly with the Democratic leader, this time Representative Hakeem Jeffries, despite his long track record as an unwavering shill for big business and a war hawk. They gloated in social media posts and mocked the Republican clash in television interviews. They joined the mainstream media, which described the fight as a “circus” or “squabble,” and as a sign of major crisis inside the Republican party, compared to the “disciplined” and rational Democrats who cheerleaded Jeffries.
Chair of the CPC Pramila Jayapal tweeted, “One day in and Republicans are already making history — by proving they cannot govern.” Heading into Congress for the first vote on speakership, CPC member Ted Lieu tweeted a smiling photo of himself with a bag of popcorn. As the first vote failed for McCarthy, Squad member Jamaal Bowman, who was elected on the basis of support from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), tweeted, “This is embarrassing for McCarthy, and yet another display of Republican dysfunction.” Minutes later, Bowman tweeted again, saying “McCarthy must be as red as a tomato right now from the embarrassment of getting fewer votes than Jeffries,” with a laugh emoji and a large picture of a tomato.
Calling the debate over speakership “chaos,” AOC celebrated the unity and the lack of “defections” in the ranks of Democratic Party House members in electing Jeffries as their leader.
The Squad and the Crisis in Left Leadership
The fight over McCarthy’s Speakership does indicate a crisis, but it is not of the kind the liberal media or the Democratic Party politicians have claimed it is, nor is it isolated to the Republican party. The challenge to McCarthy is a continuation of the process of the loss of credibility of the two major parties in the eyes of millions of ordinary Americans. More and more working people increasingly understand that neither party really represents their interests, and that both parties are primarily beholden to the ruling class and to Wall Street interests.
Millions supported Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016. Bernie’s defeat in the primaries at the hands of the Democratic Party leadership paved the way for the election of Donald Trump, leading at least a section of Sanders’ supporters to vote for Trump’s disingenuous message of “draining the swamp” of Washington DC politics. The DSA grew by leaps and bounds following Trump’s election, revealing the widespread hunger among young and working people to fight the corporate domination of U.S. politics and to win gains for working people. Many across the nation were energized by the elections – buoyed by DSA support – of the Squad Congressmembers like AOC, Bowman, and Ilhan Omar.
Since then, however, those who had expectations of the Squad have been left bereft of any fighters on their behalf, as AOC and her ilk repeatedly refuse to challenge the Democratic Party’s entrenched corporate politicians.
This question first came to a head at the end of 2020 around the #ForceTheVote debate, with a section of the most politically advanced working people and the left demanding that the Squad hold their vote for corporate Democrat Pelosi as House Speaker in order to demand a vote on Medicare for All single-payer healthcare. AOC and others in the CPC and many progressive commentators refused, saying that it would be a waste.
In part, this reflected the Squad’s unwillingness to acknowledge that their starting and fundamental duty if they claim to serve working people is to expose establishment politicians in their own party, the Democrats, in addition to the Republican party, as the corporate servants they are. Forcing them to vote on progressive measures they are opposed to but would prefer to stay silent on, such as Medicare for All and taxing the wealthy, is one way to do this.
The #ForceTheVote tactic, as Socialist Alternative and others on the left explained at the time, should have been part of a strategy of exposing the establishment by the Squad not only insisting on a floor vote, but also using their elected positions to call mass rallies and protests to mobilize working people, a powerful majority of whom support Medicare for All. The Squad took what seemed like a strikingly obtuse stance on this. As AOC tweeted, “If you want to know who’s opposed look @ cosponsor list.” The Squad even raised the fear that the tactic could allow Republican McCarthy, or even fellow Democrat Jeffries, to win the Speakership. They seem to now have forgotten their previously stated concerns of Jeffries’ ties to big business, as they proudly and obsequiously supported him this month.
After two years of having failed to expose corporate Democrats or provoke any serious political debate on issues important to working people, let alone win anything significant, the Squad and the CPC stunningly betrayed railroad workers fighting for paid sick leave this past December. They voted to break the workers’ strike, doing the bidding of Biden, Pelosi, and railroad billionaires like Warren Buffett.
Right Populism and Trump
Such selling out of working people by the Squad and progressive Democrats is helping to create space for right populism. With its purported opposition to the political elite, right populism is an extremely serious threat to working people in its ability to ensnare those who are justifiably angry at the status quo. Which is precisely why many on the left noted how the determination of the right-wing Freedom Caucus to defy Republican leadership stood in stark contrast with the Squad.
As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, the holdout Freedom Caucus Republicans who opposed McCarthy could not be brought to heel by big money interests and Republican Super PACs because they have the support of massive small donor networks. They are also not worried about losing in upcoming elections because they know that their constituents want them to shake up the complacent ivory tower of U.S. politics that is filled with politicians happy to kowtow to corporate lobbyists and the ruthless billionaire class.
The right populist pretense of standing up for ordinary people can be used as a Trojan Horse to carry out damaging attacks on Social Security and Medicare and other vital programs. Let’s not forget that con man Trump got himself elected by claiming to speak for “the forgotten men and women” and then marked his Presidential term by carrying out vile attacks on immigrants, women, and working people, and forcing through the Trump Tax Cuts for big business and the rich.
The Squad’s Failures and Its Lessons
Members of the Squad were also elected by grassroots volunteers and donors who hoped that they would stand up to billionaires and the Democratic leadership, and fight for the interests of working people.
Such hopes have now been entirely dashed.
The Squad has refused again and again to clash with the Democratic leadership or fight for the working-class demands they ran on. Instead, they have engaged in a series of performative gestures, while going along with Biden and the Democratic leadership, an abysmal record punctuated last month by their devastating votes to crush the railroad workers strike.
This shows that while having a progressive program and rejecting corporate campaign money are basic requirements to be a working people’s representative, they are very far from enough. The Squad’s trajectory shows the dead end of progressives and socialists prioritizing their personal peace and friendship with the establishment and basing themselves on backroom negotiations. Their complete unwillingness to mobilize working people and the masses to fight on working-class demands has tied their hands and allowed them to be absorbed into the Washington elite.
Disgusted by the Squad and the CPC’s gleeful whoops as the right-wing fought for concessions from McCarthy, one activist said, “You could have done this. You were begged to do this. You didn’t. We didn’t get a vote on Medicare for All, $15 minimum wage, student debt forgiveness, or an extension to the eviction moratorium specifically because YOU didn’t do this.” Another said, “The Republicans are demanding something for their votes for Speaker. Wow. It sounds like they chose to #ForceTheVote. I don’t know if they are more courageous than you or that you & the “squad” are solely focused on your careers. I suspect both.”
Had the Squad taken even the limited step of forcing a vote on Medicare for All, they could have used it to create wall-to-wall news coverage on progressive priorities in the way that the MAGA Squad did for their reactionary demands. It would’ve given the Squad endless opportunities to get on national TV to talk about Medicare for All. They could have used the momentum to call for a national day of action for M4A alongside progressive unions like the National Nurses United, and mobilize hundreds of thousands of working and young people.
Undoubtedly, this would have put AOC and the Squad squarely in the crosshairs of the Democratic leadership. But it would also have greatly energized working people to see the Squad as a force that is not afraid to fight on their behalf. The Democratic establishment is extremely unpopular among working-class people. By openly fighting for working-class demands, the Squad could have confronted the establishment’s attacks by arming themselves with the support of ordinary people outside Congress, and building a movement.
This is exactly what we’ve done with our socialist Council office in Seattle. By relying on the power of mass movements outside City Hall, rather than backroom negotiations with the Democrats on the City Council, we made Seattle the first major city to win a $15/hour minimum wage. We also won the historic Amazon tax and a host of renters’ rights victories. We made Seattle the first abortion sanctuary city in the country last year in the wake of the repeal of Roe v Wade, and won public funding to make abortion free for anyone who needs it in the city.
The fact that the Squad, and many DSA electeds across the country, haven’t taken this approach has meant they unfortunately have very little to show for their time in elected office. This has contributed in a serious way to the current crisis in DSA, which has seen the organization hemorrhage members.
This is a bitter lesson, and a missed opportunity for the left. However, in many ways this lesson comes at an important time. With the explosive developments in the labor movement, and the general hunger for a fightback among working people, the time has never been better to begin constructing a working-class political alternative to the Democrats.
That’s why myself and my organization Socialist Alternative are launching Workers Strike Back, an independent movement organizing in our workplaces and on the streets against the bosses and their political servants. Get involved with Workers Strike Back today!